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First Do No Harm

February 16, 1997 | ABC Television | 94 minutes
Directed by: Jim Abrahams | Written by: Ann Beckett | Cinematography: Pierre Letarte | Editing: Terry Stokes | Costume Design: Lynne MacKay | Production Design: Karen Bromley | Music: Hummie Mann
When Lori (Meryl Streep) learns that her young son Robbie (Seth Adkins) has epilepsy, she first trusts the judgment of the hospital staff in how best to bring it under control. As Robbie's health slides radically downhill, she starts her own research into the existing literature on treatments. As Lori decides to try an alternative treatment called the Ketogenic Diet, she is met with resistance from Robbie's doctor, who is prepared to take legal action to prevent Lori from removing him from the hospital. This movie is an indictment of those in the medical profession who discuss only the treatment options they favor.
Cast: Meryl Streep (Lori Reimuller), Fred Ward (Dave Reimuller), Seth Adkins (Robbie Reimuller), Allison Janney (Dr. Melanie Abbasac), Margo Martindale (Marjean), Oni Faida Lampley (Marsha Williams), Leo Burmester (Bob Purdue), Tom Butler (Jim Peterson), Mairon Bennett (Lynne Reimuller), Michael Yarmush (Mark Reimueller)

Meryl Streep made “First Do No Harm” for the most personal reason. Her friend Jim Abraham’s son, Charlie, was a schoolmate of her own children in California, and developed epilepsy in his first year. “I watched them negotiate the labyrinth of care for him, and I was witness to their frustrations and their anguish. They got swept into this whirlpool. Charlie was not doing well at the end of the second year. They had access to all the best medical advice, the best conventional wisdom; and it was on the eve of brain surgery for him that Jim discovered the ketogenic diet in the library. They flew to Johns Hopkins, which was the last place on earth that was still administering the diet.” Both Streep and Abrahams were supportive of the Ketogenic Diet ever since, and Meryl hosted a public service announcement for the Charlie Foundation. When Abrahams planned a film about the Ketogenic Diet, Meryl was on board right from the beginning. “There was a lot of talk about making a feature, but we all thought that it would be better if it was seen by a lot of people”, Meryl says. “So we took it to TV. It’s the populist medium, where we get out what we’re trying to say to the most people.”

On her character, the “fiercely determined” mother, Meryl says “She’s forced to be. But basically she’s somebody who is going along in her life, the way we all do, happily, and then reality flips – and that’s when you find the measure of your character, in adversity: what happens when it all goes bad. So, she’s probably somebody who believes in everything that her doctors tell her – and that they are telling her the whole truth and nothing but the truth – but her faith is shaken along this journey. And then she realizes, as we all do, that you’re in charge of your own destiny and of your child’s health, and that there are a lot of answers out there, but that it’s always going to be up to you to sift through them”.

“First Do No Harm” is an important film, because epilepsy hasn’t been the subject to many films before, nor afterwards. The decision to bring it to the small screen is understandable, in order to reach a wider audience. And while the film reminds you at times that it’s a conventional television piece, it keeps its pace throughout and is very emotional at times. The film not only covers the disease itself and how it effects the Reimueller family, but also shines a more critical light at the American health system. The acting is first rate as well. Meryl Streep is exceptional as the mother, especially in those scenes where she is helpless and can only hope that the doctors will find a cure for her child. It’s one of her more earthy performances and could have won her the Golden Globe or Emmy she was nominated for. The rest of the cast is equally good, from the child actors to Fred Ward as Meryl’s husband, to Margo Martindale as the supportive friend. “First Do No Harm” is not easy to consume, but it’s an exemplary television film to raise awareness. Very recommended.

☆   Primetime Emmy Award – Outstanding Lead Actress in a Miniseries or a Special
☆   Golden Globe Award – Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Made for Television
☆   Golden Satellite Award – Best Actress in a Miniseries or a Motion Picture Made for Television
☆   Online Film & Television Association – Best Actress in a Motion Picture or Miniseries

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